Supreme Court Permits Decalog Removal (June/July 2001)

Challenges of Ten Commandments displays on public property got a green light on June 5, when the U.S. Supreme Court announced its refusal to hear an appeal of a decision by the 7th U.S. Circuit ordering the removal of a Ten Commandments display in front of the Municipal Building in Elkhart, Indiana.

The biblical monument, like so many others, was erected in the 1950s by the fraternal Order of Eagles, who joined with Cecil B. DeMille, director of the 1956 movie “The Ten Commandments,” in donating the tombstone-like granite displays to local governments around the country.

The Elkhart monument had been donated in 1958.

In an unusual move, the court’s most conservative justices–Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, joined by Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas–issued a dissent arguing the case should have been accepted. Rehnquist claimed: “Indeed, a carving of Moses holding the Ten Commandments, surrounded by representations of other historical legal figures, adorns the frieze on the south wall of our courtroom.”

In fact, that artwork depicts a wordless tablet.

Rehnquist also revealed his hostility to the Supreme Court’s 1980 Stone v. Graham decision, which disallowed Commandments in public classrooms: “. . .we have never determined, in Stone or elsewhere, that the Commandments lack a secular application. . . . Undeniably, however, the Commandments have secular significance as well, because they have made a substantial contribution to our secular legal codes. . . . The fact that the monument conveys some religious meaning does not cast doubt on the city’s valid secular purposes for its display.”

Justice John Paul Stevens weighed in with his own written rebuttal pointing out that members’ reasoning is not stated in denials of petitions. He called the dissent misleading.

“Even though the first two lines of the monument’s text appear in significantly larger font than the remainder, they are ignored by the dissenters,” Stevens wrote. “Those lines read: ‘THE TEN COMMANDMENTS–I AM the LORD thy God.’

“The graphic emphasis placed on those first lines is rather hard to square with the proposition that the monument expresses no particular religious preference.”

Stevens also pointed out that at the dedication ceremony for the Elkhart monument, “three of the principal speakers were a Catholic priest, a Protestant minister, and a Jewish rabbi. All three spoke not of the ‘cross cultural . . . significance’ of the Ten Commandments (opinion of Rehnquist, C.J.), but of the need for every citizen to adopt their precepts so as to obtain ‘redemption from today’s strife and fear.’ “

Freedom From Religion Foundation